he scream ripped through the air and
shattered the peaceful lull of night.
Bolting upright from her bed, her mind still fogged from the depths of dreamless sleep, Alaell looked around wildly for the source of that which had woke her up so shockingly.
The shrieking continued, howls that resounded with such pain and misery that Alaell’s skin, under her cotton white shift, fairly rippled with dread.
Scurrying out of bed, she flung opened her door even as her roommate, similarly awakened, asked with the same fearfulness, “What was that? What’s happening? Alaell?”
“It’s Damari,” Alaell replied, realising that the screams were emanating from the room on the very last reach of the hallway which Damari Amisys occupied with another acolyte.
“You stay here,” Alaell told Reveth, who had not budged from her bed and was clutching the covers to her chest, as she ran out of the room.
A year older than the acolytes, Alaell had the duty to ensure that all the acolytes in training to be priestesses to Seyella observed the rules and came to no harm. She did not mind the task, for Alaell Adredar was one of those who were born to mother others with a single-minded resolve.
She hurried down the corridor; some of the other girls were peeking out from their own rooms, expressions of bewilderment and panic evident on their faces.
“Nothing is amiss. Go back to bed,” Alaell reassured the scared acolytes as she strode past.
Reaching Damari’s room, she hesitated for the length of a few heartbeats in front of the door. The screams had stopped by now, but the terrible remnants of the sound still echoed within Alaell’s awareness, and she was not sure she wanted to know could have possibly made the girl screamed so.
However, she had a responsibility to all the girls under her charge and that included Damari.
Steadying herself, she knocked on the door before opening it. It was not locked. None of the acolytes had the privilege of locking their rooms until they were full-fledged priestesses.
“Damari?” Alaell said, stepping inside. ‘Damari? Are you unhurt?”
The light from the lanterns hanging outside the hallway spilt through the opened door, illuminating the room. Alaell saw Damari on the bed, curled up into an impossibly tight ball. Her thin blanket was thrown onto the floor, twisted into knots, as if she had flung it away while in the throes of a violent struggle.
“We were asleep and then she just started screaming.” A tall girl with sweet features was standing next to the bed, wringing her hands helplessly.
Speaking confidently, though that was the last thing she was feeling right now, Alaell told Enaryn she would take care of things and that Enaryn should use her bed instead for the rest of the night while she stayed here with Damari.
With a doubtful look, Enaryn agreed. Her roommate’s shrieks had unnerved her badly; there had been a quality to the screams that was horrible. Gathering her blanket, she left the room and Alaell and Damari were alone.
The girl’s body was stiff and taunt as a bowstring. She jerked away when Alaell sat beside her. Ignoring the unspoken rejection, Alaell gathered the rigid form into her arms, untangling limbs and trying to warm the icy, sweat-soaked skin with her own heat.
Damari’s head nestled against the crook of Alaell’s shoulder and her eyes were squeezed shut into slits. Her face was ghostly white with dark circles underneath the eyes and when the stiffness passed as Alaell rocked her gently, murmuring soothing words, she started trembling instead.
Damari Amisys, a priestess of Seyella endowed with the gift of seeing. Image drawn by Enayla.
“Alaell?” Damari finally whispered
when the trembling lessened. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” Alaell replied. “We heard you screaming loud enough to wake the dead. We are lucky that the priestesses are on another level and the wooden floor separating the acolytes and them is thick enough that they will not hear anything. Even if Seyella rained toads on the roof.” A touch of humour entered her tones.
“Were you dreaming? A nightmare?” Alaell paused. Then, she asked carefully, “Did you have a vision?’
At Alaell’s question, Damari shuddered, growing even paler if possible.
“Was it very terrible?”
“Yes.” Damari drew back and looked Alaell in the face. Her eyes were no longer shut but wide open with the strange, piercing grey of her irises shining in the dim light. “There was a child. Sleeping. With blonde hair like wheat ripened in summer. A beautiful child, filled of life and of promise…” Damari trailed off.
The girl continued, “She was smiling in her sleep. She was dreaming. I could not see clearly. My visions are always thus, murky. And then...I saw hands reaching down to the child as if to embrace her…as if…” Damari choked, “oh Gods. Not to hold her. Not that. Those hands reached down, slid the pillow from underneath that lovely head with the golden hair and the same hands then placed the pillow over the smile and covered it.”
“Damari…” Alaell breathed in horrified dismay as she listened.
Damari’s voice took on an eerie, singsong cadence. “The child struggled. But she was young. Weak. She did not have strength enough to fight off her attacker. Then...then, she just stopped. And the hands took the pillow away and the beautiful child wasn’t smiling anymore. She was dead and still she stared and she stared at me…staring and demanding why I had not stopped her murderer! Alaell, I could not save her! I felt her die, felt her agony as the last gasp of air was sucked out of her lungs and I do not even know who she is!”
Damari’s voice rose to a frenzied cry again, as she clutched her head with her hands in despair.
Alaell took her firmly by the shoulders and shook her hard. “Listen to me, Damari. It is not your fault. You must not think that. You could not have prevented this evil deed. It was meant to be, although I do not understand why.”
“And I do not understand why I am allowed these visions if I can do nothing to stop the wanton destruction happening to innocents. Why is Seyella doing this to me? What have I done to incur Her wrath that She must punish me like this?” Damari said with tired bitterness.
“Seyella has Her reasons.” Alaell tried to comfort her. “It is not for us to know Her ways, but She loves you. She would never hurt you so if your visions did not have a purpose.”
“I wish Gagi never brought me here. I hate this place, I hate Seyella.”
“Damari!” Alaell shook her again, scandalized by the other girl’s blasphemy. “You do not mean that.”
“Yes, I do.” Damari looked unflinching into Alaell’s eyes. “I cannot bear this much longer, Alaell. I cannot. The visions hurt too much and I see only endless death and pain. I will go mad but I know, even insane, the visions will keep coming until I have nothing left. I must stop the visions in any way I can before that happens. Perhaps in Queprur’s realm will I finally have a good night’s sleep.” Damari’s lips twisted in a parody of a smile.
Alaell covered her mouth with her hand in shocked disbelief. To end one’s life was to disrupt the paths of destiny foreordained by Seyella and so suicide was a grave offence to the Gods.
“There has to be another way,” she said strongly.
Damari was silent, and then she clutched hold of Alaell’s hands so tight that there would be bruises the next morning.
“Let me leave the temple then. I have to go away from here!”
“You know they will never let you leave, Damari. The priestesses think you might be the next Voice. Especially if the rumours are true and Elannon is deathly ill.” Alaell’s heart ached, seeing the hope shining in Damari’s eyes slowly fade away, but the temple would never allow the girl to depart. It was an impossibility. For even if she did not prove to be the successor after the present Voice, Elannon, die, Damari was a Seer and true Seers were rare and much sought after.
“So. I have no choice,” Damari said bleakly, turning away from Alaell.
“Let me speak to Nera. Perhaps she can help.” It was a slim chance but Alaell did not know what else she could do besides talk to Nera, one of their teachers and a priestess of the Inner Circle that served the Voice, and who had showed consistent kindness towards Damari. Damari was not well liked among many in the temple for the other priestesses both feared and envied her powers.
“Damari, please? Let me try?”
Damari nodded listlessly and both girls were silent as they huddled together in the sparsely furnished room until dawn.
Alaell knocked on the door of Nera’s
office and waited. As she did, she gave a hurried shake to her robes, hoping
they were neat enough. All the acolytes agreed that Nera was one of the nicer
priestesses but even so, she was very strict on appearances and bearing, always
citing that a slovenly aspect was an affront to Seyella.
“Come in,” Nera summoned from within and Alaell geared up her courage to enter.
The old priestess was sitting behind her desk, looking at some parchments. Behind her, rows and rows of shelves extended the entire circumference of the room. All were piled with new and ancient tomes, standing side by side and giving off a dusty smell of learning. The office had two large glass windows that reached from ceiling to floor, giving ample light that was centred upon Nera’s desk, seemingly enclosing her in a blazing white glow.
Though she was old, Nera’s posture was that of a much younger woman, her spine straight and unbending. Her pepper-grey hair was piled up in a bun on top of her head, not one strand out of place.
Alaell stood in front of the desk, not daring to speak until Nera did.
“Alaell. You wish to see me?” Nera looked up and smiled in greeting, the seams on her face creasing more deeply as she did. “Is anything the matter?”
“Is there or isn’t there a problem?” Nera, thankfully, sounded more amused than impatient.
“It’s Damari. I am worried about her,” Alaell blurted out.
Nera’s forehead furrowed and the laughter immediately vanished from her eyes. Leaning forward, she asked with great intensity, “ Has something happened to her?”
“No, but she had another vision last night and she woke the entire acolyte wing with her screaming.”
“It was a terrible vision. She saw a child…foully murdered.”
“She said she was going mad and that she will kill herself if the visions continued,” Alaell confessed anxiously. “She wants to leave the temple.”
“Did she? Ah, poor child. The burden she bears is a hard thing indeed,” Nera sighed. “Alas, I fear the peace she seeks so desperately cannot be found within these walls.”
“Please, Priestess Nera, isn’t there anything you can do to help her? Can you…can you help her leave the temple?”
Nera pursed her lips and shook her head. “Alaell, I may be a priestess of the Inner Circle but my hands are bound and there will be severe repercussions for me and for Damari should I be discovered helping her to flee. It is not so simple,” she huffed and expelled another sigh before revealing, “Elannon Sceien is dying.”
“The rumours are true then. Do you mean Damari will become the next Voice?” The acolyte clenched her hands together with wonder.
“I do not know. The Voice is always chosen when the old one dies, through rituals and auguries that many believed are guided by the hand of Seyella. Damari was not chosen through such a ritual and she came to us when she was close to her first moon blooding. A new Voice is usually a babe. Of course, her powers as a Seer count in her favour. However, there are those who still adhere blindly to the old ways and who will oppose Damari’s claim as successor.”
Overcome with misery, Alaell muttered, “Then she truly has no one left.”
“She has you.”
“Me?” Alaell started with surprise. “What can I do? I am not even a priestess yet.”
“True friendship is something that is rarer than a blue rose and more powerful than the might of the seas and oceans combined.”
“If you say so, Priestess Nera.” Alaell looked doubtful. “Though I still do not know how I can help her.”
“You can watch over her and protect her from harm.”
“Harm? Damari is in danger?”
“Perhaps. It is only a conjecture naturally. There are those who do not think Damari is a suitable candidate as successor and so they might do anything to ensure that she will never have a chance to stake such a claim. But this could merely be the paranoid mistrust of an old woman, you understand.” Nera’s tone was light and casual but her eyes bespoke utter seriousness as she folded her hands and stared at Alaell intently.
“Accidents have happened before, in the temple. Despite Seyella’s watchful eyes,” said the priestess evenly.
It was a summer afternoon with the light of Injèrá blazing down but Alaell suddenly felt cold, as though it was the deepest, darkest day of winter, pinned by the force of Nera's stare and words.
For the second time, Alaell was
awakened in the middle of the night. This time, by an indefinable sense of
unease that coursed through her veins and gathered at the core of her heart.
It was Damari, she knew it without knowing how she knew.
Magic was not taught to all the acolytes; only to the selected few who showed a talent for spell casting. Alaell had not previously displayed any such aptitude but she did have a special, inexplicable affinity to feel the aura that connected all things living and bound them together. Nera had told her once that the ancient elves of Caelereth called this astral aura, Cár'áll, but to Alaell, she just knew that she could feel and sometimes, even physically see the auras of other people.
As Alaell extended her awareness, much like how a fisherman might fling out a net, her mind involuntarily thrilled to the seeking despite the gravity of the situation. Magic was seductive and compelling, which was why so many magic-users became ruled by it rather than the other way. That was the peril and the reason why she kept her ability a closely guarded secret. That she might, one day, submerge so completely within another’s aura and lose herself with no manner of returning.
But she recalled Nera’s words to her this afternoon and the icy sensation flooded her entire being once more. She recognized that feeling now; it was dread, pure and simple. She was profoundly afraid for Damari and so, she had to try.
Intensifying her search and summoning all her concentration, she at last managed to locate Damari’s aura flickering at the edge of her magical perception.
However, with the same ability, she perceived that Damari’s aura was curiously dimmed. As if it was being deliberately tampered with.
Taking care not to wake Reveth, she climbed out of bed and closed her eyes, willing her gift to guide her to where she was needed.
She could sense it, unexpectedly strong, the bond pulling her out of the room, into the corridor. Towards the direction of a little-used passageway, leading to a spiral staircase that in turned went up to the top floor of the tower that hardly anyone visited since it was too cold and drafty for suitable habitation.
Trusting her instincts, Alaell climbed the stairs, the iciness of the stone steps penetrating the soles of her feet. She shivered under her thin shift as she reached the topmost level and screamed when she saw Damari perched precariously at the edge of a window, hewed into the side of the wall.
“Damari! No!” she cried but the other girl seemed not to hear her. She did not turn around and her arms rose, out-stretched as though she intended to fly.
Alaell shrieked again and with a momentous leap, she hurled herself to the base of the window, grasped Damari by the waist and forcibly dragged her off the ledge, ignoring the pain that shot through her body as their combined weight threw them both to the floor.
Damari lay unresisting within her arms for a few moments before she started struggling feebly.
Alaell released her grip, too winded by the impact of Damari’s weight slamming into hers to do anything else. She lay on her back and puffed, trying to get air back to her lungs and willed her heart to stop pounding like a drum.
“Alaell?” Damari said hesitantly. “What are you doing here? What am I doing here?”
Alaell thought with some irony that many questions had been asked of her of late and strangely enough, people actually expected her to have the answers.
“You were about to jump. I stopped you,” she replied shakily, when she regained her power of speech.
Damari gave a stifled gasp and looked away quickly. “I was not going to jump.”
“Then do you think you had suddenly developed the power of flight and was going to test it out?” Alaell retorted angrily, though she was more scared than furious. “You told me you were going to end your visions one way or another and a broken head against the rocks below seems a fine way to do just that!”
“I could not sleep so I decided to come up here to breathe. Away from that cloyingly sweet incense sticks that the priestesses insists in lighting outside our rooms. I loathe that smell. It is everywhere, even on my skin,” Damari said hollowly, her eyes haunted. “So I came up here and I was looking down from the window. It was very high and the ground so very far down. And I thought it would be so easy just to…just to...and I do not remember anymore until you came! I swear to you I remember nothing.”
Alaell recalled the awareness that something, or someone, had manipulated with Damari’s mind and the suspicion grew when she saw that the girl’s aura has regained its usual brilliancy.
Accidents have happened before…
“I think someone had cast a compulsion spell of sorts on you,” Alaell’s words came out slowly as she thought hard. That was the only explanation and it rang true to her. “And you were thinking of ending your life. You were vulnerable at that moment, Damari and your attacker took advantage of it. The spell would not have made you jump but it would most certainly have helped nudge you to act upon that desire.”
Damari turned pale and she started shaking. “But why? Why would someone do that?”
“Because Elannon Sceien is dying. Nera said there would be those who would do anything to prevent you from staking a claim to be her successor.”
“I care nothing to be the next Voice! Do you think I would want to be kept in a cage till I die, or until I am driven incurably mad by visions?” Damari spat out vehemently. “I would rather live my life out in obscurity in some village where they have never heard anything of Voices and Seers and Gods who care for nothing but their own whims!”
“Alaell, they blind the Voices…” she continued, her terror apparent. “I do not want to be the Voice. I am frightened.”
“So am I,” Alaell admitted.
“I have to leave this place,” Damari stated quietly.
“Yes and I will help you.” She was petrified, worried and sad all at once but Alaell knew, with startling clarity, what she had to do and that, if she had to, she would give up everything to help Damari escape.
The news came like a thunderbolt
from a clear sky and spread faster than a hungry, rapacious fire.
Alaell was within the main hall of the temple with a few other acolytes, cleaning the lanterns of the oil from the previous night, when Seveth burst in, her face red with running, strands of hair escaping from her braids.
“The Voice is dead! The Goddess has taken Elannon Sceien an hour ago and the Inner Circle is preparing for her burial ritual even as we speak!” Seveth panted her news out, leaning against a pillar for support.
At her news, the acolytes started chattering to each other in hushed, excited tones. The Voice was dead! The burial ritual would take exactly ten days to complete and after which, the Inner Circle will then cast the auguries to determine who will be the next Voice.
Damari! The thought of her friend sprang instantly into her mind. Now that Elannon was dead, the need to stop Damari’s chances of becoming successor would become even more direly urgent to her unseen enemies. The last failed attempt on Damari’s life had been a subtle effort, insidiously planned to cover any tracks of foul play. Alaell was sure that the next attempt would be less restrained and more direct.
Damari had to leave the temple. Now. Without delay.
She rose, as casually as she could.
“Priestess Nera would want to know of this,” she said to the rest even as her mind raced with myriad possibilities.
When she rounded the corner of the hall, she started running, not stopping until she reached Nera’s office.
Without knocking, she burst into the room, startling the old priestess.
“I beg your pardon, Priestess Nera!” she gasped out. “We heard…the Voice passed away!”
“Yes, I have heard too. It is a sad occasion but there is no reason for you to come charging into my chamber like this. This is very unbecoming behaviour for an acolyte,” Nera admonished sternly.
Taken-aback, Alaell could only stammer, “But…but you told me…Damari…accidents. Someone tried to kill her! Someone inside the temple!”
“Nonsense. I do not recall telling you such a thing. These are serious allegations and I would suggest you not speak of them so openly in the future unless you wish to be severely punished.”
Stricken, Alaell stared at Nera’s impassive countenance, the withered taste of ashes inside her mouth as her hopes died.
“I am sorry. I will leave then,” she murmured wretchedly as she turned to go. She had failed. Damari would be murdered before she could succeed Elannon, that is, if she did not go mad from the constant assault of her visions before that happened.
“Wait. I need you to run an errand for me first.”
“Yes, Priestess Nera,” Alaell said tonelessly.
“I have placed an order for a rare first edition of the complete translation works of Fitch Serdior. The bookseller has informed me that he has found a copy for me. I want you to get the book for me. Here is the address of the shop.” Nera scribbled something quickly on a piece of paper and handed it to Alaell.
Alaell said nothing else as she grasped the paper. She could not look Nera in the eye, the sting of betrayal too bitter and harsh.
“Take this with you.” Nera produced an old, weathered looking key from one of her many pockets. “In a very short while, everyone will know that Elannon has died and that will probably include the whole of this city as well. It will be difficult for you to return through the entrance when the mourners start to throng the gates. This key will open the small gate at the very end of the grounds, near the east side of the temple. You can use it to come back in. Very few know that this gate exists, let alone that I have the key to it.” Amazingly, the old priestess winked at Alaell before her features smoothed out again.
“Do you understand all that I have said?”
With shaking fingers, Alaell took the key and clutched it to her chest. There were so many things she wanted to tell Nera but there was no time so she only nodded with gratitude. “Yes, I understand.”
“Good. Off you go then. Mind you, no dawdling. Just get the book and come back.”
“Where will you go?”
Damari laughed, a wild, joyous sound that gladdened Alaell’s heart for she had never heard her friend laugh with such a carefree manner before, in all the time that she had known her.
“I do not know. Does it matter? I am free, Alaell. Free to walk any path I want. Free to choose.”
“Seyella go with you.” The archaic blessing came instinctively to her lips as she bid Damari farewell.
“Maybe She will but I think I do not need Her anymore.” Damari grinned. “I make my own destiny now.”
They embraced fiercely, knowing they would never see the other one again. “I shall miss you,” Alaell said.
“Then come with me. If they ever found out that you had helped me, you will be punished. Maybe worse.” Grabbing hold of Alaell’s hand, Damari implored.
For a moment, Alaell was sorely tempted. To walk out with Damari and see the rest of the world that lay beyond the gate, that was a powerful lure which awoke a surprising yearning inside her. She loved Seyella with all her heart and to be a priestess and serve her Goddess was what she had always wanted since young.
Nevertheless, to be without fetters and to taste what the world could offer her…Alaell closed her eyes and shuddered with a bittersweet sorrow before she could summon the words to reply.
“I am not brave like you, to face the unfamiliar and start anew and so, I will stay,” was what she said with a terrible calmness though a part of her already regretted her decision.
Yet, she had decided, for good or for ill and she will abide by her choice. “You go. Live as a free woman. Think of me sometimes and I will be content.”
Damari’s beautiful grey eyes filled with tears. She pressed her palm against Alaell’s, one last time, before letting go.
She passed through the gate swiftly after that and Alaell never saw her again.
Every now and then, in the years that came, cloistered behind the temple, she would wonder what became of Damari Amisys. And whenever she did, she would think of an untamed falcon, screeching its delight to the infinite skies as it soared to the clouds, and hope.
Story written by Dalá'Valannía